Near the beginning of "Pocahontas," the new Walt Disney animation, the heroine and her father come up with different interpretations of the river that runs through their land. Stodgy parent that he is, Powhatan sees it as a reliable presence that's always stable and dependable. But his daughter finds it a changing, dynamic force full of excitement and surprise.
Disney likes to think of its 33 feature-length cartoons as belonging to the latter category - a moving, shifting stream always ready to embrace new material. The variety of that material is certainly broad, ranging from age-old legends and fairy tales to contemporary stories like "101 Dalmatians," literary yarns like "The Little Mermaid," and original projects like "The Lion King."
After a little thought, though, one realizes that Disney's animated oeuvre is more like the river as Powhatan sees it: large, pleasant to look at, and comforting in its consistency. But it doesn't encompass the world with the flexibility Pocahontas values. Quite the contrary, it bends the world to suit its needs, dictated by a narrow vision of the marketplace Disney serves.
This explains how "Pocahontas" can mark an innovation for the studio - it's their first animation based on a real-life person - without giving the slightest sense of entering fresh territory.
The heroine is beautiful and frisky, the hero is square-jawed and sturdy, the animals are adorable and anthropomorphic. The drawings are equally irresistible, combining time-tested imagery with fashionable touches. All of which fits the pattern of Disney cartooning. The movie gives a delightfully smooth ride, and you always know where you're going. But don't raise your expectations too high if you share Pocahontas's taste for free-spirited adventure.
Most moviegoers will find nothing to complain about as "Pocahontas" spins its well-known story about an Indian princess who falls in love with an English colonialist, schools him in native American ways, and saves him from her father's deadly wrath when warfare breaks out. Indeed, the steadiness of Disney films is considered pure gold by parents looking for child-friendly entertainment.
What bothers me isn't the relative worth of any Disney picture, but the way these movies have evolved - or failed to evolve, clinging to formulas that refuse to grow in any but superficial ways.
True enough, "Pocahontas" tips its hat to such trendy (and worthy) causes as conservation and environmentalism, and even delivers a hearty endorsement of interracial dating. Yet the studio can hardly be congratulated for "taking a stand" on socially relevant issues, since it's careful to wrap its ideas in an aura of nostalgic fantasy that neutralizes their ability to challenge or stimulate us. This suggests that the issues in question aren't deep or important anyway, since a sprightly song and a colorful image are always enough to drive away uncertainty and restore the feel-good glow that made the Disney folks famous.
I like to feel good as much as anyone, but I can't help questioning Disney's insistence on molding all material to fit the requirements of its committee-approved blueprints - even when the material is supposedly based on historical fact - rather than steering the kind of come-what-may course that Pocahontas seeks.
Some critics are lauding the new movie for breaking out of the mold, with its strong female characters and its willingness to allow a bittersweet ending instead of a triumphant finale. This strikes me as being overly grateful for small favors, though, given the picture's overall adherence to Disney's game plan.
Looking at "Pocahontas" for plain old entertainment value, it passes the test, although there's a slightly mechanical feeling to the drawing, dialogue, and directing that makes one suspect the crew was doing it by the numbers. The film's best asset is its voice-only performers, including Irene Bedard as the title character; Mel Gibson as her British boyfriend; native American activist Russell Means as the heroine's father; Linda Hunt as a talking tree; Michelle St. John as Pocahontas's sister Nakoma; and David Ogden Stiers as Ratcliffe, the new colony's nasty governor.
For an example of Disney's self-imitation, note how Ratcliffe's dog serves as a sort of familiar spirit, like the animal accomplices of Disney's fairy-tale villains. For an example of Disney's expertise at winning its audience's heart, note how vividly the interplay between Pocahontas and Nakoma is sketched, making us feel their sisterly relationship.
No studio turns out animations with more dependable production values. And no studio more consistently implies that its version of reality is more compelling than any of the real-life complexity it so conveniently avoids.
* "Pocahontas" has a G rating.